Down time is good, right?

In today’s networked, digitalised, global, 24/7/365 economy, we hear a lot about being (or being expected to be) “always on” – permanently available,  instantly responsive, constantly alert.

It’s taken a while, but this is now recognised as more of a problem than a benefit.  Down – or “off”  – time is increasingly acknowledged as vital for a work-life balance, which in turn is seen as essential for sustaining a high-productivity workforce. “You get more done when you work less” writes Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, championing a more rest-orientated culture.

Such an approach may be fine  – unless you have to work more to earn what you need to survive.  And equally, you could say that such an approach may also work for those who aren’t running a business.

Because those of us running businesses know that the buck stops with us. Success (of failure) rests with us. Everyone can refer up – apart from us.

Making it happen

Yet business owners are still more likely than not to be able to have down time.  Here’s how:

  • Plan for it
  • Build it in to your schedule
  • Be self-disciplined enough to leave the cell phone in the drawer and the lappy unplugged
  • Above all be honest with themselves and their nearest-and-dearest about when they are going to be in the family zone, and when business can’t wait.

Are you the right type for down-time?

Business owners of a particular type can do all those things and have a fair crack at a good work-life balance, a healthy marriage and stay on speaking terms with their teenage kids. It can be done.

So, what is this “particular type”?  It’s partly about an individual’s personal qualities for sure.  There can be all sorts of reasons why some business owners don’t want to jump through hoops (as they might see it) to spend time doing stuff they don’t really want to do with people they don’t want to be in the company of.  I think that’s sad, but I’m sure it’s true.

The largest and smallest business owners fare best

But as well as their personal disposition, the circumstance of your business has an even bigger influence.   Look at a sole trader, or owner of a small business – perhaps even one turning over AUS$100k a year.  There’s a fair chance that your circumstances allow some down time without threatening your livelihood or investment.

You’ll know the rhythm of your area of operation – does it work over an 8, 12, 16 or 24 day, or  5, 6 or 7 day week?  Are some months, especially during the holiday season, essentially flat?  You’ll know when there’s less risk in taking some down time.

It doesn’t apply to all sectors for sure.  Small convenience store retailers for example.  And certainly, some contracts will require long days for limited periods in order to deliver for the client.  But for many,  a degree of work-life balance is achievable.

If we go to the opposite end of the economic spectrum the same is true but for very different reasons.  Those working for large and very large organisations, in sufficiently senior roles,  will have people working for them to take the weight of running the business when the boss (in this illustration – you)  are unavailable.  A kind of protective shield.

There are risks here  too, of course.  What if one of your protective shields isn’t up to the job?  Goes rogue?  Makes the wrong call?  Well, no doubt your skill at building a business of this scale means you also have the necessary attributes and instincts to minimise this as a possibility.

The middle ground is tricky

So, if you are at either end of the spectrum of business ownership, balancing work and business looks possible.  But most of business owners, necessarily, are probably  somewhere in the middle.

And in the middle is where it gets tricky.  The business is possibly too big, in employees, turnover, scale of operations,  for the boss to switch off.  But it probably isn’t big enough for all the support mechanisms to let him/her do so.

What is the solution? What are the prospects for business owners seeking, needing a work-life balance?

Giving yourself space for down-time

An obvious, though imperfect, response is for business owners to limit the growth of their companies.  Imperfect because it is so counter-intuitive to stop a good thing going and growing. But with SMEs and microbusinesses increasingly dominant in many economies, perhaps the “small but perfectly formed” model will find favour.

I’m afraid I’m not too optimistic though.  Yes, SME and microbusinesses offer more flexibility and control for their owners,  but if you are in the service sector,  deadlines are tight and margins tighter.

So perhaps a better approach is to prioritise the things that will give greater capacity.  Either by direct employment or through  contracts with specialist support services, business owners need to place more emphasis on their own emotional health and well-being.  That still leaves many businesses below the thresh-hold at which such things are possible, but it lowers the bar considerably.

A down-time future is within our grasp – almost

In the end analysis, unless we all move to somewhere like Denmark,  business tends to run on Darwinian lines, with strength being closely aligned to survival.  Down-time is undoubtedly a good thing both for business owners personally and the firms they run.  Mitigation and relief are available, but not to all.

Perhaps we just have to accept that concepts of unplugging will need to gather much more traction before work-life become the norm,  but we can all play our part in making that happen.